Cinco de Mayo art opening at Oakland's Chi Gallery

Last year, Berkeley artist Juana Alicia drove to the San Francisco airport every day for months, working alongside carpenters and mechanics and putting in way too many eight-, ten-, and even fifteen-hour days to meet the construction deadline. It's hard to imagine the scale of her finished mural, titled Santuario (Sanctuary), until you see a photo of her in the midst of painting it, dwarfed by all but the smallest background figures. Or until you encounter the real thing, of course. A scale model of her fresco and its surroundings (in Gateroom 97, Terminal G) will be a part of Chi Gallery's May exhibit, which spotlights the recent projects of both Juana Alicia and her husband, Emmanuel C. Montoya.The two artists converted the garage and basement of their Berkeley home into a studio/workroom after moving in six years ago. That's where Montoya did most of the work on his contribution to Santuario: the huge wooden shorebirds around the edges of the mural. "I hadn't ever done sculpture until this project," says Montoya, "but working in bas-relief was not so different from the engraving involved in printmaking."

Prints are his primary medium, and his ongoing interest in the Mexican artistic tradition is obvious from his style and choice of subjects: a pair of hands emerging from an agave cactus, an ornate metal-framed mirror in a Oaxacan cafe, and an enormous color linocut of Quetzalcoatl, the pre-Columbian deity of knowledge and culture. The Chi Gallery show will include examples of all of these and more, as well as photographs of Montoya at Berkeley's KALA Art Institute, applying pigments to the enormous pieces of paper he used to print his Quetzalcoatl (a commissioned work for SF's Mission Branch Library).

Public art projects force an artist to consider the big picture in more ways than one--not only in terms of ladders and scaffolds and big buckets of paint, but also in terms of the community that will live around and with the art. Montoya and Juana Alicia intended Santuario to represent the Bay Area as a haven for people from around the world.

The scene includes all different ethnicities and ages: a Laotian woman and her son, an African-American couple, the young, the old. Montoya's carved shorebirds recall the saltwater marshes that are now paved-over airport runways. And if you look carefully, you can see where Juana Alicia's own idea of "sanctuary" crept into the picture: images of her husband and daughter, both smiling and happy.

Juana Alicia and Montoya have both served as professors at Bay Area colleges for a number of years: she at New College, Stanford, Skyline, the SF Art Institute, and CCAC; he at SF City College and SF State University. And they are both extremely active in grass-roots-level projects and politics. Montoya has taught art to disabled adults at Creative Growth Art Center, to inmates in the Tracy prison system, and to kids at local grade schools and Oakland's Museum of Children's Art. Juana Alicia is a cofounder of the East Bay Center for Urban Arts, and she has also been active in issues surrounding labor, refugees, and immigrant rights.

"It's important for Juana Alicia and me to be accomplished artists, doing things like the airport project, and also doing things like working with kids in schools," says Montoya as he shows me the work of his students at Creative Growth. He carefully opens the box and lingers over each page, running his turquoise- and silver-laden fingers over the bright inks, layered thick on the paper. There's obvious pride in his voice.


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